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The enduring appeal of Rajinikanth

Rajinikanth paid many of the distributors who suffered loss due to Lingaa, but purely on humanitarian grounds. He was, in no way, bound to do so. No other actor in Tamil film industry had ever done so.

regional movies Updated: Dec 13, 2017 10:44 IST
Nivedita Mishra
Nivedita Mishra
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Rajinikanth,birthday,Rajinikanth star birthday
A look at Rajinikanth’s global appeal on the occasion of his birthday.

The first time one heard of Rajinikanth was back in the mid 1980s. Those were the days when families preferred to watch films not in cinema halls -- the decline of cinema among the film-going populace in the ’80s was just beginning -- but on VCRs. I recall watching Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini-starrer Andha Kanoon (1983) sometime perhaps in 1985-86. As a youngster, my focus was, of course, on the lead stars. However, I distinctly recall noticing another actor – the second lead, who, er, wasn’t exactly much of a looker by Bollywood standards. Growing up in an era of many good-looking men in Bollywood (think Kabir Bedi, Vinod Khanna, Shashi Kapoor), there was no way Rajinikanth was going to impress.

The fact that he spoke Hindi with a heavy south Indian accent didn’t help. However, that was then. For me, growing up in a world away from the four south Indian states that produced films, it meant that nothing was known of him after that. Cut to 2009. The keyword lists from the product team (it was a digital platform after all) in my previous company would often include Rajinikanth and his works. On his birthday, Rajinikanth jokes would certainly feature. The emails would often be flooded with such jokes. Not just that a few Pakistani friends too would share them and we’d all have a good laugh. I recall one particular instance, when the possibility of meteor striking the earth was in news. I don’t need to tell you how joke went – just one force could save the earth, it said. The picture showed a towering Rajinikanth kicking the approaching meteor!

Around the time, Robot (Enthiran in Tamil) was to release, the jokes, ‘Rajinikanthisms’ -- flicking the cigarette, the bullet splitting into two stunts, etc – again started doing the rounds. Maybe, these things have been in circulation for quite some time, but I got a taste of them around 2009-2010. I was hardly a fan as I hadn’t seen a single film in the languages he excelled in. However, in these early years of familiarization, what was getting evident was the kind of iconic status he had come to enjoy in collective Indian consciousness. I am more than certain, many of those people who enjoyed Rajinikanth jokes, hardly had any understanding or knowledge of his films, down south. But who cared! When you came across a forwarded message, first on emails and then increasingly on phones, one simply enjoyed a good laugh and moved on.

Sample these:

In 2013, NDTV was celebrating its 25th anniversary and was honouring 25 Indians who had left an indelible imprint on collective Indian consciousness – 25 Greatest Global Living Legends. It featured big names from across the various fields of human endeavour. Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, AR Rahman, Waheeda Rehman, Indra Nooyi, Narayan Murthy, Ila Bhat… the list went on. One of them was, of course, Rajinikanth. While Indra Nooyi’s acceptance speech, which was truly inspiring, went viral, it was Rajinikanth’s speech that told me a bit more about the man. The gist of his speech was that he believed miracles happen. How else could an ordinary bus conductor come to share the stage with all the illustrious persons seated on the dais (Narayan Murthy, AR Rahman, Amitabh Bachchan, Ila Bhat, Amartya Sen, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ratan Tata etc), he said. The world speaks of his humility and the video just illustrated that. His fans have always cited how the man is so confident in his space that he never hides the fact that he is balding.

To many his spirituality might look fake, even a pretense. But every time, one sees the man in a state of pensive reflection, it does seem that he feels a deep connection with some superior force. His journeys to the Himalayas are well known. He has been a long time follower of Raghavendra swami, the 17th century Bhakti saint from south India. However, it one thing to have a personal faith and quite another to follow what your ‘guru’ teaches in reality.

When his film Lingaa released and later flopped badly, there were many reports of how distributors, who have brought rights for the film at exorbitant rates and hence suffered, complained that Rajinikanth ought to compensate them for their losses. Rajinikanth paid many of these distributors, but purely on humanitarian grounds. He was, in no way, bound to do so. No other actor in Tamil film industry had ever done so. A Times of India report detailed how Rajinikanth had gone out of the way to ease the problems of such distributors in the past too when his film Baba (2002) failed at the box office.

Quoting film analyst R Ramanujam, the report said when Lingaa’s distribution rights were up for sale, none of the regular distributors showed interest. “Experienced distributors know the trade and what sells. When they felt the film was not worth the price it was offered at, they decided to stay away.” That’s when new distributors entered the fray. Veteran film journalist Ramji told Times of India, “Many took personal loans and even sold property to buy the rights. They were betting on the film making record collections.” He further added how the Tamil film industry has changed for the worse over the past 20 years. The report said how, in the past, if a film failed, the actor would compensate by working with the same producers but for much less money. MG Ramachandran often did so. However, what Rajinikanth had done was unprecedented.

“The short-sighted ‘Lingaa’ distributors, new entrants to the industry, overpaid for the rights. Rajinikanth refunded their losses purely on humanitarian grounds,” film producer and distributor S Thanu was quoted as saying. Despite his failures at the box office (many of last few films have not done well, Kabali being an exception), he still remains a force to reckon with. Both his forthcoming films – Shankar’s 2.0 and Pa Ranjith’s Kaala – have tremendous hype around them. However, the writing seems to be clear – his glorious era on the silver screen might just be coming to an end. That is precisely why he is preparing for his next innings – a career in politics. While he has been an influencer in Tamil Nadu politics for long, this time he will take the plunge.

The author tweets @mniveditatweets

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